In the far-flung northern Indian hamlet of Mandal, one nun has dedicated her life to proving that children treated as “God’s curse” are in fact one of the world’s great blessings.
It is just another day at work for Sister Anet at St. John’s School for special needs children.
There’s the regular staff meeting in the morning to get everyone on the same page. Requests for necessary repairs at the school are brought to her attention. Teachers are briefed on their lesson plans for the day.
Located in the northern Indian hamlet of Mandal in the region of Jammu and Kashmir, an unassuming, single-story building adjacent to a Catholic church provides an invaluable service — education to kids born with physical and mental disabilities.
The locals, going about their day, mostly seem unaware of the hard work being put into helping equip these children with the necessary skills to become contributing members of society. Regardless of whether her efforts are recognized, Sister Anet pushes ahead, giving her all to make sure the children’s needs are served.
It has been 12 long years since this 39-year-old nun from the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) found her way to the school so far from her own home.
Hailing from the southern Indian state of Kerala, Sister Anet was completely unaware of the climatic and cultural conditions of Jammu and Kashmir when her journey began.
After acquiring training in her home state, Sister Anet wanted to serve the downtrodden and handicapped children in far off Indian villages, whom she says are treated as a burden from God.
“I wanted to end that deep and dreadful taboo that is still running in the Indian villages. Any home where a kid with some disability is born is considered to be cursed by God. For the kid’s parents, he is nothing less than a burden for life. I wanted to upend that notion to the core,” Sister Anet told LiCAS.news.
The school offers pre-primary, primary and secondary education, teaching everything from color recognition to literary skills.
Run by the local social service wing of the Catholic Church, Jammu and Kashmir Catholic Social Service Society, the school’s task, first and foremost, is to get parents in the village to actually send their kids to the school.
Sister Anet said when she first joined the school, she had to come up with a strategy to get parents on board with their children’s educational needs.
She lamented how mainstream schools would simply refuse to admit special needs children, and the parents had no other option but to keep them at home.
“I went door to door. I meet the parents and assured them that they didn’t need to worry about their children, that they could be just as diligent and worthy as those kids who society calls normal,” Sister Anet said.
“I assured them that they would see a very positive change in their kid’s behavior after being admitted to the school,” she said.
Forty children, both boys and girls from low income backgrounds, are currently enrolled at the school.
Apart from providing them an education, the school also gives them free uniforms and books.
“The kids love to come here and their parents are also satisfied with the way we are teaching them. They see very positive changes in their kids. I had a parent who was in tears when he saw his 8-year-old daughter identifying various English letters and pronouncing them well. What greater solace can there be than this,” asked Sister Anet.
The nun, however, says that her everyday struggle to educate the kids will only bear fruit when society accepts them as equals.
“There is nothing wrong with these kids. The only difference is that they are born with some special needs. They are intelligent, hardworking, and loving. I find myself blessed to have them all in my life,” she said.
Sister Suni Mary, also from the CMC, has been assisting Sister Anet for the past year and is in charge of the primary-school class. One of her responsibilities is teaching the kids how to recite the alphabet.
She told LiCAS.news that the kids in her class learn faster than “normal kids,” and many of them are blessed with very creative minds. She recalls how one of her students, a 6-year-old, thought up a way to make a handmade broom to clean the school floor on the fly.
“He put a stick in one hand and a used cloth in the other. Then he showed us how to make a broom with these leftover things to sweep up the floor. We were dazzled. The extraordinary qualities in these kids make us all very proud of them,” Sister Sunni Mary said.
Sister Sunni Mary hails from central India and joined the congregation. Like Sister Annet, she felt her calling was to help those who are less fortunate.
When she joined the school, she recalls how Sister Anet guided her everyday to become a better teacher.
“After just a month of being admitted into the school, we find a big difference in their overall behavior, mood, and [level of] tolerance. When at home, these kids sometimes get frustrated due to not being able to communicate like other kids,” she said.
“Here, we teach them to effectively communicate and manage their anger.”
Meanwhile, the annual school function is about a month away and Sister Anet is getting her students and staff ready for the event.
She is preparing the kids to perform dance and song routines, as well as their other talents to those in attendance.
“It is a great feeling every year to see the parents of these kids smiling and waiving at the stage. They see their kids performing and those scenes are the greatest treasures for them,” Sister Anet said.
“Maybe a day will come when I will see my students excel in their lives and enjoy societal acceptance,” she added.